(January 19, 2023 / JNS) From the earliest days of Zionism and the State of Israel, the Jewish people have counted on support from the United States. While not commonly known, and discussed even less, without President Woodrow Wilson’s support for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, England would never have issued the Balfour Declaration. The Versailles treaties and other post-World War I international agreements that laid out the Jewish people’s right to their own state in the land of Israel would never have been signed without American support.
This support included American Jewry. The leader of American Zionism was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who was almost elected president of the World Zionist Congress (he lost to Chaim Weizmann).
For the past seven decades, Israelis and the pro-Israel community have known that the majority of the American people and their elected representatives supported Israel and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. For years, Israel was the only issue that was seen as completely bipartisan.
For the first time in recent memory, however, a considerable number of candidates for elected office in the U.S. do not support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. There have been candidates who go even further and oppose Israel’s very existence. There are even members of Congress who have crossed the line into blatant antisemitism.
The American political arena is getting uglier and uglier for the pro-Israel community and the bipartisan support Israel once enjoyed can no longer be relied upon.
While this new trend is worrisome, one 2022 congressional race may indicate the birth of a new breed of American Zionist. A candidate from Michigan, Shri Thanedar, maintained pro-BDS positions throughout his political career. An Indian immigrant and wealthy businessman who self-funded his $8.2 million campaign, Thanedar raised alarms in the pro-Israel community because he co-sponsored a resolution in the Michigan House urging Congress to halt aid to Israel. The resolution called Israel an “apartheid state” and accused it of “human rights violations.”
The pro-Israel community, including AIPAC’s super-PAC, gave its support to Thanedar opponent Adam Hollier. AIPAC’s various PACs gave Hollier $3.1 million, an incredibly high figure that matched the sums it spent in other highly competitive races. But the pro-Israel community lost the election. Thanedar won.
Then, the unthinkable happened in today’s political atmosphere. In an about-face, Thanedar changed his position on Israel. He withdrew his sponsorship of pro-BDS legislation in the Michigan House. He also rewrote his position paper on Israel, stating that he “maintains it is important America is seen as always supporting Israel economically and militarily so they are able to defend themselves in a dangerous part of the world and that the United States must continue to strongly support Israel and the Israeli people.”
It is incredibly rare for an elected official to change positions. An elected official who changes their mind on support for Israel is even rarer. What caused Thanedar’s change of mind? In an interview with Jewish Insider, he explained, “When I was formulating my Israel policy, I felt that resolution did not fit with, and upon more reflection, more reading, I felt that the language in there was not in line with my thinking. It was a mistake.”
One of Judaism’s foundational ideas is that everyone can change. Maimonides wrote that a person can change their views and behavior even on the last day of their life. A person who decides they have erred and corrects their mistakes is considered greater than a person who has never made a mistake in the first place. There is always a way back from taking regrettable positions. There is no reason that positions on Israel would be any different.
The history of the modern Zionist movement is full of people who opposed the movement and later changed their minds. The Jewish people’s right to their homeland, to determine their own future and to have a place of refuge isn’t self-evident to those who haven’t studied Jewish history and the Jewish connection to Israel. If many Jews mistakenly opposed Zionism and the State of Israel, only to change their minds later in life, it is understandable that non-Jews unfamiliar with Jewish history travel the same path and change their position as well.
This transformation has happened countless times over the 150 years of the modern Zionist movement. While some opponents of Zionism will never change their minds, education and learning about the Jewish connection to the land of Israel can be effective. Zionists should never underestimate the effect a conversation that reviews the basics of Zionism can have on an opponent of Zionism. Watching Congressman Thanedar’s change of heart gives us hope that a new breed of Zionist, one who has thought about the issues, is emerging.
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.
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